TBC Ep 1 | “Gloria” and “Dona nobis pacem” from the B-minor Mass


Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 1: Remarks by George Stauffer, performance by the Washington Bach Consort (Dana Marsh, Artistic Director)


In the fall of 1748, two years before he died, Johann Sebastian Bach began to compile a Missa tota, or a full setting of the Latin mass consisting of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. We're not quite certain why he did this; as a whole, it had no place in the Lutheran service, and at one hour and 40 minutes long, it was too lengthy for the Catholic rite. It probably stemmed from a personal interest on Bach's part on his desire to leave a lasting legacy in the form of a monumental work in a timeless genre: the Latin Mass.

Bach composed the B-minor Mass chiefly by recycling earlier music, by reaching back and taking his best pieces and movements written years before and rearranging them for a new setting.

Looking on the shelf, he found that he had a Missa, or short Mass, from 1733 containing a large Kyrie and Gloria. He also had a lengthy Sanctus and six vocal parts from 1724. The remaining portions had to be filled in with excerpts from his favorite cantata movements, reworked. To look at the two movements we're going to hear in a moment in Bach's original manuscript, we see that they differ starkly. Here's the Gloria with the score taken literally over from the 1733 Missa. Bach is in his prime, and his handwriting is beautifully smooth and calligraphic. The music seems to jump off the page.

Here's the Dona nobis pacem, written 15 years later. Bach is now old and arthritic, with failing eyesight, and his handwriting is stiff and labored. The music is thick and stolid.

In the 15 years that separate the Kyrie and the Gloria from the rest of the Mass, Bach became increasingly interested in choral writing. The Kyrie and the Gloria display an almost equal mix of dramatic choruses and arias. It was originally composed for the virtuoso ensemble of the Saxon elector Friedrich August II in Dresden, and Bach wanted to give these virtuoso players something to chew on. The Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei portions, by contrast, consist almost fully of choruses; it reflects Bach's growing interest in a pure choral sound.

In the present mini concert by the Washington Bach Consort, we will hear a pair of these remarkable choruses. First, the "Gloria in excelsis Deo." This movement stems from the Missa of 1733, and Bach sets the Gloria text ("Glory to God on high") as a joyful dance in light 3/8 meter and bright D major, with trumpets and drums. There's thought this movement may have been an instrumental piece, with voices added, since the instrumental element is so strong. The Gloria is often called the "angelic hymn" because it's a proclamation of Christ's birth sung by the angels in heaven. Bach has those angels swaying ecstatically in air to the strains of an Italian gigue.

The mood changes abruptly with the next line, "Et in terra pax" ("and on earth peace"). The voices enter peacefully at first, but they become more and more animated as the music develops into Bach's favorite form, the fugue. The movement builds and builds and ends in a thunderous climax. The "Dona nobis pacem," the second piece we're going to hear, is the final movement of the mass, with the text "Grant us peace." The music contrasts greatly with that of the Gloria. It's a stately Renaissance vocal style supplemented with Baroque trumpets and drums. The voices and instruments enter slowly and gracefully, one by one building once again to an immense climax.

This buildup is clear in the present performance by the Washington Bach Consort, in which the voices and instruments entered both aurally and visually on split screen. In his composition score, Bach ended the "Dona nobis pacem" and the Mass as a whole with the inscription "Deo soli gloria" ("To God alone the glory"). This marks the completion of this magnificent piece and symbolically, the completion of Bach's work as a composer, for he died less than a year later, leaving the B-minor Mass as the capstone masterpiece of a remarkably rich and productive musical life.

Text and Translation

Gloria / Et in terra pax Glory / And peace on earth
Gloria in excelsis Deo. Et in terra pax hominibus bonæ voluntatis. Glory be to God in the highest. And in earth peace to men of good will.
Dona nobis pacem Grant us peace
Dona nobis pacem Grant us peace